These “Bookmark” posts are useful for me; hopefully a few other people get something out of them along the way.
I really enjoy Neal Stephenson‘s books. Unlike Stephen King, another novelist where the length of the book increases with each new effort, I never read a Stephenson book and wonder how badly he beat the editors. Stephenson books revel in their research, the density of information jammed into the pages is part of what makes his novels work.
You can divide up the novels of Neal Stephenson into maybe three categories. Scholars and critics can tell me why I’m wrong but it makes sense enough to me.
First there’s his early efforts. I haven’t ready either of these two books: The Big U (1984) and Zodiac (1988). I’m not sure if they are worth seeking out or not. I haven’t had anyone tell me I must read them and a lot of people are aware that Stephenson is one of my favorite authors.
Second there’s the sort-of-cyber-punk era. He did come after William Gibson and Bruce Sterling who definitely have a period of work that defined cyber punk science fiction, but it felt like these two books from Stephenson had something in common with them. Both Snow Crash (1992) and The Diamond Age: or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (1995) are fantastic books; I haven’t reread them in a long time so I’m not sure how well they hold up but their timing at the edge of the mainstreaming of the Web and the Internet and all of its possibilities could not have been better.
Last is everything else — which is my favorite period of his books. Starting with Cryptonomicon (1999) and then moving into The Baroque Cycletrilogy: Quicksilver (2003), The Confusion (2004), and The System of the World (2004) — you see Stephenson applying the science fiction viewpoint to the span of history in a way that really brings the material alive. The Baroque Cycle in particular gives you an approach to historical fiction that really captures the amazing rate of change and the enormity of the future in those periods of time. Science fiction from the perspective of the 17th to 18th Century.
Anathem (2008) is a shift back to more of a speculative future and includes a brillant bit of world building by Stephenson. Reamde (2011) is maybe closest to Cryptonomicon in terms of one of his earlier works but narratively is perhaps the most conventional novel Stephenson has written. Probably also the most purposely topical novel as well – although there are speculative bits in it, it is very much set in the present day and the present world.
I am reading right now his alternate fiction effort titled The Mongoliad which he is writing with others in a series of books. I have finished part one and I am in the middle of part two. I think part three just came out. I am just reading them. I just didn’t have enough time to dive into the whole website, phone app–multi everything part of it that came first. (So was that any good? I’m not sure I know anyone who participating in it as it occurred.) Still I might have a chance to experience more text plus efforts from Neal Stephenson since they are setting up an entire slightly-alternate universe to encompass The Mongoliad and likely other efforts at Foreworld dot com.
Neal Stephenson is a geek legend at this point. I don’t think his first novel Snow Crash would have existed without William Gibson’s early novels coming first, but it’s just speculation on my part unless I get a chance to talk to either author. Don’t get me wrong, I love Neal’s books and unlike some, I’ve liked each new one better then the last. What some see as a weakness — stuffing a tremendous amount of knowledge on the subjects of his books — well, I tend to love that part of his books.
His most recent project, The Mongoliad, came out of his interest in sword fighting which is also something he’s learned to do in real life. Now he’s started Clang, an ambitious Kickstarter project, to do a videogame that more faithfully implements sword fighting mechanics on the screen.
It’s a very funny video and in fact there’s a second also funny video further down the Kickstarter page. $500,000 is a lot of cash but not all that much in terms of the millions spent on game development these days. It looks like headed into today, it’s about 1/5 of the way to its goal.
Neal Stephenson is an amazing processor of information. I (like countless other fans of his work) am currently reading Anathem, his latest novel which tackles such myriad issues as religion, science, the long clock… I’m only 200 pages into a lengthy brick of a book. So far it is living up to the amazing trilogy of his previous work, The Baroque Cycle books.
If you missed them, The Baroque Cycle books are Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. Stephenson has an amazing ability to process, digest and integrate knowledge in his work — the books are historical fiction and yet they have this very science fiction feel to them that is bound up in the tremendous excitement about discovery and possibility Stephenson brings to the story. You read these books knowing at once the historical contours of where they will go, but you get so engaged in the characters wild journey through the amazingly productive time of the books (1660-1715) that there is a giddy feel for the discovery of modern financial systems akin to Doc Brown inventing a time machine.
Stephenson was one of the first authors I saw who let fans use the Internet to take apart his books online or at least the knowledge in them. The first time I saw this was on a site called the Metaweb which was a wiki built around the books of The Baroque Cycle (sadly the URL seems to have lapsed and the work is only accessible through the Wayback Machine). Now there seems to be a similar effort built around Anathem. This wiki approach is a natural for an author who layers so much material into his narrative; it seems intuitive for readers to pull the layers back again and to build that knowledge outwards.
This is a small thing, but I’m just struck by how fans of a work might no longer view the reading of the book as the end of the experience, but instead take on such a thing as working on a wiki built around the book. How does that change the readers’ relationship to the book; the author’s relationship to the readers? I’m not entirely sure if there’s any generalization that’s entirely valid — nothing requires readers to be anything more than readers, just as nothing requires a writer to pay attention to the world beyond a paper and pen in front of them. Nevertheless, with work like Stephenson’s it’s really interesting to think about the life of the book beyond the acts of writing it and reading it.
Stephenson recently spoke at the Googleplex; the Q&A provides a lot of insight into what he’s interested in and how he approaches his writing (I liked in particular his thoughts on the “deification of knowledge”).